As frat guys go, this one is pretty friendly. The same level of party boy that Keith has come to expect, but far more inquisitive than others he’s met. It drives Keith nuts that so many people pay thousands of dollars a year just to get drunk and not go to class. They could do that in their parents’ basements. Maybe there’s something else about the life he just doesn’t understand. Maybe it’s a power thing. Or a purely practical networking tactic. Either way, Keith couldn’t be less impressed.
Under normal circumstances—i.e., without the power of electives—he might never even come in contact with Those People, tending as they did to populate the accounting and political science and sports marketing majors. It was likely no coincidence that frat row sprang up near the business school’s corner of campus.
So it was surprising to hear Lance mention a syntax quiz after elective fencing one morning.
“Wait, you take syntax?” Keith had asked. You??
“Yeah it’s required for the linguistics major.”
What the actual hell. Keith had just automatically slotted him into finance or physical therapy or criminal justice or business administration, such that a couple weeks of contentious bouts apparently hadn’t been enough to actually ask what he was studying.
“I’d been putting it off,” Lance had said. “Seemed too much like math. Now that I’m in there it’s actually pretty cool.”
“Bad at math?”
He shrugs. “It just isn’t easy.”
“But syntax is easy.”
“Not really? But it feels like there’s a place to hook in. It’s like sudoku, it’s all puzzles. You just have to learn to see it right.”
Aren’t we all lucky life is that easy.
At first the work had flowed that easily. The theory had been there, prepared like carbo-loading before jumping off the starting block. But Keith had sprinted at the beginning of a marathon. Hardly one lap in, he hit a language barrier.
Thus, beyond all reason, Lance became his first choice.
The problem with single-credit courses is that they only happen once a week. Keith meets with his research advisor more often than that, which allows him to get chewed out a handful of times for failing to network. It takes two weeks before he finally finds the willpower to approach Lance.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Yo.” He’s checking the notifications he missed during class.
“I mean like—talk.”
Lance looks up, thumb still scrolling. “Uh. . . .”
“You know what, never mind—”
“No, I was just”—he taps the screen—“supposed to meet up with someone at the Union. You wanna come with?”
There’s instant panic at the notion of an additional dudebro but Keith finds himself saying, “Sure.”
“Great. Walk with me.”
They couldn’t look like more of an odd couple. Keith is a blob of faded black clothes, the only hint of color in his weathered purple Chucks. Lance is the daylight to Keith’s midnight—neon green snapback (backwards, obviously), cargo shorts, Birkenstocks, a tank that may or may not be patterned like that of a certain wallaby living a modern life—the works. He’s a puka shell necklace away from perpetual spring break Tijuana 1995.
There’s also a bracelet that his niece made, which seems a little brave in that most people don’t know his niece made it so he’s just parading himself around with beaded pink jewelry. You have to give him points for originality.
“You like sabre, right?”
Lance steps aside to let a skateboard to pass. “The class we just had? You seem to like it more than foil.”
Jesus Christ. “I don’t like the rules.”
“My knees noticed.”
“Yeah . . . sorry about that.”
But not really. With sabre the only way to score is to strike above the waist, a fact which Lance uses to full advantage by keeping his shoulders back in a more defensive stance and leading with his legs. This pisses Keith off.
However Keith too uses the rules to his advantage; invalid strikes don’t stop the action, so the momentum is never interrupted. This question has had him so pressurized that he owned it, and let himself be less concerned with scoring points than with taking every goddamn opening he saw.
“Combat Pragmatist,” Lance says. “I fuck with it.”
Keith blinks. He almost misses the turn in the sidewalk toward the student union because everything that comes out of Lance’s mouth alters the direction Keith thinks the conversation is going. Lance truly just praised him for unlawfully kicking his ass.
As much as talking to him is exhausting, it’s also exhilarating. Keith is perhaps too accustomed to shallow people who lay conversational traps just to watch him walk into them. With Lance it’s more like walking into pitfalls of positivity.
Once again Lance surprises him when he waves across the food court—not at another dudebro, but a refreshingly less Extra guy that Keith recognizes.
“Keith, this is Hunk. Hunk, Keith—”
“Were you in psych 101 last semester?” Keith asks. “With Vega.”
“Yeah I was! Sorry I don’t recognize you though.”
“Hunk, you seem to forget you’re more recognizable than most people.”
“Says the guy with the fluorescent hat? Obnoxious.”
Keith snorts. Lance throws him a dirty look, but it lacks any ounce of seriousness.
They all independently pick up the cheapest deli sandwiches from the coolers and meet up at a table by the windows. Listening to Lance chat with someone more his speed is both entertaining and calming, despite the stress he causes mano a mano. With less pressure to respond, Keith can better acclimate to the rhythm of his banter, the subtle shifting of his tones.
Perhaps most surprising is how comfortable he feels with them, how easily they both let him sit and observe. He goes several minutes at a time without speaking, but they remain aware of him. With new acquaintances he normally feels so shunted to the outskirts, quietly allowing people the liberty of being blissfully ignorant of him. It’s not often that he’s given the leeway to just be himself, to himself, in the company of others—without being forgotten.
Finally Lance says, “So what’s up, hoss. You wanted to talk.”
It’s hard to speak up with sharp blue eyes staring right into him. Lance has the kind of easy confidence that doesn’t realize how intimidating it is to those without it. Hunk does recognize Keith’s discomfort; he rests his chin on his palm and averts his gaze to the window of the bookstore just off the food court.
“Well . . . I’m working on my senior project.”
“Oh cool.” Lance sucks on his straw; it’s mostly air. “What is it?”
“Well—you’re a linguistics major, yeah?”
Even absent the business degree he’s still type A enough to double major. Keith doesn’t want to know how many minors he’s attempting.
“I might ask for your help,” Keith says. “Later.” He’d definitely ask but doesn’t want to lay it on too thick before the guy even—
“Sure, what do you need?”
“Yeah man, what’s the project?”
“Uh . . . well.” Shit, he didn’t think this would work in his favor. He hasn’t practiced explaining it to Normals. “It’s kind of an experiment.”
“What’s your major?” asks Hunk.
“Oh jeez. Lance I think this thing is out of your league, buddy.”
“You hush, Keith is the expert here, he’ll tell me what I can’t do.”
“Well it’s kind of . . . I mean it’ll start with some social science, and I’m. . . .”
Lance raises a brow, but when he speaks it sounds less like concurrence than a merciful halt of Keith’s self deprecation. “Just lemme know how I can help, man.”
“I don’t even know if it’s your—wheelhouse, I guess.”
“I’m pretty versatile. My phonetics prof wanted me in graduate classes, and that was first semester freshman year.”
Damn, how lucky is this kid? Positive, confident, amiable, good at everything, and a prodigy in his selected field?
“I didn’t feel disciplined enough at that point, but it was a nice gesture for her to suggest it.”
“So you need some language-y stuff,” Hunk prods.
“Well the idea is to . . . contact an alien civilization. And learn something from them.”
“Holy cats.” Lance tugs at the bill of his hat, pulling it more snug on his head. “Can you do that?”
“Well. There’s one that—I mean we haven’t contacted them yet, but as species we’re kind of aware of each other’s, uh . . . radio waves. Basically.”
“So you need actual contact.”
“I kind of have it? I just—”
“You’ve literally contacted an uncontacted alien civilization.”
“Well—no. There’s no back and forth. But I can reliably pick up their transmissions. I just—also can’t understand any of it.”
Lance’s mouth splits into a lopsided smile. “You want me to do some language arts on em?”
“If you think you could.”
“Fuck yeah I can. How is it going on my transcript?”
“Or like—field study XP or whatever.”
“It’s the credit hours you’re hung up on.”
“I mean . . . kinda.”
“Come on, this is a fuck ton of work we’re looking at, for free? I’m already gonna be in debt the rest of my life, thanks Reagan, I need to get something out of it for this to be worth my Thirsty Thursdays.”
Right. Party boy. He must just be that fucking good at everything naturally. The kind of person who doesn’t like math just because he has to actually study for it.
“And Wasted Wednesdays,” Hunk adds.
Keith decides Montgomery can fuck herself, he’ll take the berating. “Alright, just fucking forget it.”
“Now hang on hang on,” Lance says. Keith swats at the hand placed on his shoulder. “I’m willing to negotiate.”
“Maybe I’m not.”
“Admit it though, you need me.”
“You’re not the only one in this building that could do this.”
“You need to understand something about my brand of soft sciences.”
Hunk rolls his eyes. “Here we go.”
“Anthropology is an umbrella discipline typically subdivided into four others, one of which is linguistic anthropology. And there are exactly six undergraduate courses in linguistic anthropology on the entire bulletin. Plus a professor everyone hates teaches most of them. His name means ‘the deaf’ in French, how good a look is that.”
“Quicker to the point?”
“Take it easy cowboy, I got background.”
“Really starting to regret this.”
“Now you could go directly to the linguistics department, where there is one”—he holds his hands up in the shape of parentheses—“one course in sociolinguistics, which isn’t really what you’re looking for until you have a handle on the cultural basics, as well as one course in field methods, which is great for the language thing, but not so much the anthropology part.”
“You need the intersection of the two. That’s where I’m at. And I’m the only one.”
Keith looks to Hunk. “Is that on the level?”
He shrugs. “I’m on the sociocultural arm of anthropology, so.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, bruh.”
“I dunno! I mean he’s annoying as hell, that’s a strike against him—”
Keith sighs. “What’s stopping me from picking a linguist and an anthropologist separately?”
“You really wanna deal with extra staff?”
“Maybe if they aren’t you.”
“Trust me, I know these fools, none of them are equipped be the face of this operation.”
Keith gets the feeling he really could go directly to the linguistics department head and ask for some other more self-motivated student at this purported intersection. It’s hard to believe that on a campus of fifty thousand there’s only one (1) person with this combination of expertise. Maybe a graduate student. A doctoral candidate, with more than bluster to their name.
“I’m putting our numbers in here,” Lance says, tapping away on—when did he snatch Keith’s phone? “Text me when you make the right choice.”
Oh, Keith did that long ago.
He just has to follow through.